Police in India's central state of Madhya Pradesh arrested nine Christians, including two pastors, on false charges of illegal conversion under the state's controversial "anti-conversion" law, a Christian persecution watchdog organization reports.
Police arrived at a house church in Jhabua District's Padalya village, where Pastor Ramesh Vasuniya was leading a worship service last Sunday, local sources told the U.S.-based International Christian Concern reported.
The pastor was allegedly dragged to a police van, and five congregants were reportedly arrested.
In a separate incident in Bisoli village in the same district, police reportedly arrested three Christians, identified only as Pastor Jansingh, Ansingh and Mangu. They were charged with forced conversion.
Sources also allege that officers beat the three Christians inside the police station.
Upon searching their homes, authorities reportedly confiscated Bibles and a certificate for a Bible course as evidence of "forced" conversion.
Officers were said to have demanded Pastor Jansingh's wife to pay 300,000 rupees (approximately $4,000), saying she would otherwise never see her husband again.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, human rights advocates have warned that attacks on Christians have increased and intensified.
While Christians make up about 2.5% of India's population and Hindus comprise about 80%, radical Hindu nationalists have carried out attacks on Christians under the pretext of punishing the use of monetary rewards to convert Hindus to Christianity.
Several Indian states, including Madhya Pradesh, have enacted "anti-conversion" laws, which bans the use of "force," financial benefits or other forms of allurement to encourage Hindus to convert to Christianity.
While some of these laws have been in place for decades, no Christian has been convicted of "forcibly" converting anyone to Christianity. Hindu nationalist groups often abuse these laws to make false charges of forced conversion against Christian leaders and organizations.
Anti-conversion laws typically state that no one can use the "threat" of "divine displeasure," which essentially means Christians can't talk about Heaven or Hell since it would be seen as luring someone to convert.
The independent news website The Scroll reports there has been an "anti-Christian" mobilization in the Jhabua district for over a year that has organized rallies and pressured government officials. In September, the Jhabua district administration reportedly issued notices to Christian leaders and churchgoers demanding information on their conversions to Christianity.
According to the newspaper, the notices were meant to serve as a ground for legal action against those responsible for alleged forced conversions in the area. Those notices were withdrawn by the province's high court in early December.
India ranks as the 10th worst country globally when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2021 World Watch List. According to the organization, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, "Hindu radicals often attack Christians with little to no consequences."
"Hindu extremists believe that all Indians should be Hindus and that the country should be rid of Christianity and Islam," an Open Doors fact sheet on India explains. "They use extensive violence to achieve this goal, particularly targeting Christians from a Hindu background. Christians are accused of following a 'foreign faith' and blamed for bad luck in their communities."
According to a report from the United Christian Forum, 2021 was the "most violent year" in the country's history for Christians. The forum documented at least 486 violent incidents of Christian persecution. The previous record was 328 incidents in 2019.
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